Mills Basics opened in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1949. By the time Brad Mills took over the business founded by his father, the neighbourhood was Canada's poorest, ridden with drug dealing, prostitution and petty crime. But Mills didn't cut and run. He stayed put and helped hundreds of Canada's most down-and-out people find steady work.
Mills hired local people who'd been unable to find jobs due to addiction, disabilities or other social barriers, helping them build basic skills focusing on attitude and attendance. Through the provincially funded Fast Track to Employment program, Mills Basics hired more than 50 people a year to work in its warehouse. Fully 90% kept their jobs, were promoted within the firm or found higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
Although B.C. recently ended the Fast Track program, Mills still embraces hiring the hard-to-employ. He co-founded HAVE Café, which hires local people for its café, catering service and Bites on Bikes lunch-delivery service.
Despite competing with office-supply giants such as Staples, Mills Basics' sales growth rate has doubled since it started highlighting its corporate social responsibility efforts throughout its marketing, contract proposals—and even flyers in its supply shipments. Clients and job applicants alike often cite these efforts as the deciding factor in wanting to do business with or work for Mills Basics.
And, says Mills, helping people escape from desperate poverty "is the most satisfying thing that you can do—to see someone come in off the streets with their head down and, a week later, their head is up and they're smiling."
Read other entrepreneurial success stories in "The Fabulous 30."